Inappropriate

Shannon Wright.jpeg

Art by Shannon Wright

I have noticed something. Although I’m not too bad about reading female-authored work (around a third of my reading is by women, which isn’t terrible but it should really be half), I am not great at reading books by non-Western people. I know little of Indian literature, of Chinese, South East Asian, of Japanese writing. South America is a total blank and Africa also is hideously unrepresented.

This matters for several reasons. It matters because I’m not getting the full range of human experience; it’s limiting me as a person. It matters because I’m missing out on some great stories. It matters because I’m missing some great ideas for the stealing.

If you’re only reading books by white heterosexual middle-class males then your well will only be drawn by their experiences. You will have only the white-vs-black simplicity of Tolkien. Any attempt to fantasise will have a fundamentally familiar feel, no matter how creative you are within that area. The ‘others’ – be they peoples, races, species or artificial intelligences – are simply ‘us’ through a lens.

And that’s fine. It’s great, in fact. You can write wonderful novels with that base. But by denying yourself the knowledge of all human experience that’s all you have. You could do so much more; aliens who really feel alien; elves that are strange and terrifying, not merely slightly effeminate humans.

When the original Star Trek was made, Russian was foreign enough to stand for a whole alien species. Now we have to look a little further. Would it not be interesting to model an alien race on the beliefs and practices of native Australians or Amazonian tribes? Why not look into counterculture communities to help escape from capitalist orthodoxy and give your creations a totally different feel?

‘But wait,’ I hear you cry, ‘aren’t you just advocating cultural appropriation?’ To which I reply by shifting awkwardly in my seat and mumbling incomprehensibly, before gesturing vaguely in the direction of Joanne Harris, who considered the subject thusly:

1. A growing number of young authors are torn between the desire to write diverse characters and the fear of seeming to appropriate the experience of others. I think it’s possible to do one without the other.

2. Basically, the difference between representation and appropriation is this. In the first case, the author portrays another’s experience with informed respect. In the other, the author re-invents it in their own image, with no attempt at accuracy.

3. And although yes, authors are (quite rightly) free to write on any subject in any way they choose, anything that belittles, or falsely claims knowledge or experience of other cultures is disrespectful of the readership.

4. It’s important, when writing about experiences different to our own, to listen to people who have had those experiences. That means reading their books, too, where possible, and where necessary, hiring them as beta readers.

5. Some authors find they just can’t write diverse characters. This may be due to a lack of research, skill or sensitivity. Either way, if this is the case, they should avoid trying to do so.

6. If an editor comments on an area of perceived cultural insensitivity in your novel, they are not trying to “censor” you. They are trying to safeguard your book, and to stop you making an ass of yourself.

7. You may not always get diversity right. That doesn’t mean you should stop trying to write diverse characters. It just means you need to work harder, listen more carefully, and ask for help when you need it.

8. The further away a person’s experience is from yours, the harder it will be to depict it. Know when to draw the line. Everyone has limits.

9. If you find yourself arguing with people about your depiction of their culture or experience, or trying to tell them that you know better than they do, consider stepping away.

10. If, even after research and consultation and meaning well and working your socks off, you realize you’ve got it wrong, just say so. No-one should be above doing that.

It’s a tricky subject, and is often misrepresented, I think, by people who haven’t quite realized that they’re doing it.

#TenThingsAboutAppropriation
@Joannechocolat, used with permission

If you still doubt, read Terry Pratchett’s Thud. What are the dwarfs and trolls but a stand-in for the two main branches of Islam?*

An excellent way to consider a culture is through its myths, its origin tales, its folk stories. You’ll all be fairly familiar with the Viking gods and the Classical religions of Greece and Rome are scattered throughout our modern writings. But what of Vietnamese, Guinean, Polynesian legends? What am I missing?

Tracking down and researching folk legends is hard work, so, whilst I won’t kick them out of bed for snoring, I’m going to put them onto one side for the time being and focus on simply diversifying my reading. I’m missing out on so much.

Recommendations gratefully received. I’ll be a better writer as a result.

 

*Or possibly two other religions. It’s been a while since I read it, I confess, but Islam’s the one that’s always stuck with me

Strata and substrata

Tapestree.jpg

Tapestry from the Ramses Wissa Wassef Arts Centre, Cairo

My favourite technique for building a novel is to bang all ideas together and see which stick: which complement and cohere and which fracture and fall apart. Characters, plot-threads, locations: they’re all ideas. Some will naturally work together, some will fragment and mutate, and some will just fall to the floor to be swept to the Municipal Recycling Centre of the mind.

The problem is that some ideas seem to go together quite well, but to make them work within a story requires a whole new level of intrigue and opacity. Generally speaking, complex is good: a twist – that famous, legendary twist – requires a substrata to run through the novel that the reader doesn’t even know they’re mining as they progress: in other words, a hidden layer of complexity within the story. Without multiple threads the story is bland, unchallenging, the simplest of the simples.

I like simple. I write adventures dressed up in speculative clothing. Adventures are perhaps the simplest stories as they’re fundamentally linear: good guy gets into a series of scrapes, each one sending her further towards the final resolution. But even here we need the complexity of betrayal, of emotional turmoil, of the realisation that they couldn’t trust their masters. Without this you have dissatisfaction, a children’s story populated with cardboard cut-outs.

This is not meant as an insult children’s literature, by the way. Some is outstanding: I’d point at Terry Pratchett’s Carnegie Medal-winning The Amazing Morris and his Educated Rodents. It’s a ‘simple’ story, but it’s brilliantly told and – well – brilliant.

Anyway, I find I’m becoming more complex as I learn the craft of writing. I want layers. I want secrets. I want to weave a diverse cast together and keep myriad plates spinning.

But when do you know when you’ve got enough threads? How do you know when you’ve gone too far? If you just keep weaving string upon string together not only will you never have a whole completed tapestry but you’ll just confuse and bore the reader.

I have a new idea. I went to a free festival at the weekend and saw a sideshow that inspired me. I’ve rammed it against my primary work-in-progress (which at the moment exists only in my mind) and it created interesting shapes. But to make it work in story form, how much work do I need to do? Are the changes coherent? Does it make the novel into something else entirely?

At the moment I have no idea. One day I’ll learn how to do this writing thing properly.

“Heroes”

When Terry Pratchett died in August I fully intended to sit and write a post about how much I loved his work, how he’d filled my life with joys and riches. I never did it. A combination of just having too many words inside me and the flurry of similar pieces that filled the internet put me off.

Today I have awoken to find that the other great constant in my life, David Bowie, has also shuffled off this mortal coil. Now, despite the title of this piece, I can’t say I consider either of these gentlemen to be heroes. To be honest with you I’m not sure I really understand the concept; I can’t think of a single person I’ve ever held up as the acme of humanity. But I spent so much of my life – especially through my teenage years – either reading PTerry or listening to Bowie (often at the same time) that both these people are part of me. And it strikes me that one has been a much bigger inspiration on my writing than the other.

Terry Pratchett is the author I’ve read most in my life. By a mile. Since being introduced to him by a classmate aged twelve or thereabouts I’ve gone through all his books so many times. Truly, I’ve never found so much love, joy and delight in an author’s work. He took me through my depression. His words lifted my soul, his rolling prose contrasted with and underlined his pointed observations about human nature (for what is fantasy but a new way of looking at reality?). It’s writing to admire, to adore, to fall in love with. I will be forever grateful that I was given a chance to live in his world.

But I don’t think he’s shaped my writing at all. It certainly hadn’t; maybe now I’m just beginning to see some of his long undulating sentences twitch into my work. Still, I can’t think of a single idea that has been brought forth from the Discword. Maybe some of his ways of thinking have seeped into me, and maybe someday I’ll learn to allegorise: the way he showed the dangers of internecine religious differences in Thud; the strident anti-exploitation message in Snuff, and the general ‘stop this now, you’re all being terribly silly’-ness that lurk beneath the surface of just about every novel. But for now? Nothing. A love, an undying, unforgettable love for his work, but no ideas.

Bowie, on the other hand, gave me so much. The snaps of lyrics, the agonised yearning, the neverending hope: yes, these are things I’ve learnt all the way back to when I was dancing with my sister in her bedroom, when I was six or seven, not knowing anything about the man or – really – what the lyrics meant at all. But emotion, emotion – I understood that. I understood heartbreak and pain, and I learnt it all through music. Not just Bowie, of course; I still remember lying in bed, listening to The Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’; and being haunted by the key-change into the chorus. But Bowie was the master.

When I was sixteen ‘Candidate’ startled me to the point where I free-wrote a story based on the song as part of my GCSE English exam. I’d already attempted to write a novel based on the visions built by ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. I’d tried to put a proper story behind Ziggy Stardust. I’d been terrified – in a good way – by that staggering, stuttering intro to ‘Five Years’ and the crazy longing in ‘Lady Stardust’. And lines from ‘Station to Station’ infested my poetry, my lyrics, my life.

I could write thousands of words about this. I’ve written about my distrust of ideas several times on this blog, but today I’m only just realising how different are ideas and inspiration. And my inspiration as a writer comes magnificently and majestically from music. Not just Bowie – of course not just Bowie. REM, Kate Bush, New Model Army, Swervedriver – so many, so many wonderful artists that have touched me so deeply, that have – yes – inspired me. Still I find myself most fruitful when I’m half-asleep in the car, with a CD playing. That’s when the ideas come.

I’m struggling here to conflate two concepts. Half of me wants to eulogise for these wonderful human beings, to extol their virtues, to give more and more examples of how they’ve touched me and shaped who I am. The other half wants to make a serious point about inspiration. Perhaps I’m doing neither justice, and for that I apologise. But what’s really struck me is that I am a writer by accident. It should come as no surprise that many writers started out as musicians; I can site J. Kent Messum, Joolz Denby and all these, and that’s before I even consider descending to Dan Brown/Morrissey levels.

I adore Terry Pratchett. Reading – reading him – is a true delight and I will never fail to find wonder and comfort and wisest, wisest wisdom in his work. But I’m not a writer because of him. I’m not a writer because of any of the amazing books I’ve read, that I wish I’d written. I’m a writer because of music. And whenever I need to top up my well of inspiration it’s not my bookshelf I’ll turn to but my CD rack. David Bowie was my first and my deepest. It’s nothing but fitting that he managed to stage-manage his death so well: and there’s surely a story right there.